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Chapter 24: Uninvited Guests

In the cockpit, Nike sat in the central command chair viewing several displays. Bud, Bailey, and Chelydra clustered around her and examined the results. Percy, Arkady, Amanda and Shlitzee entered together. Amanda was dumbfounded by the featureless sand pressing against the cockpit windows. Chelydra handed a bag to Percy. "Here you go Perce. I found it in the supply room. I left the spears there."

"Thanks, Lieutenant," Percy said as he took the bag.

"We may be protected from the storm and free of hostile stowaways," Nike was saying, "but we're still motionless. There's a problem with the reactor. Without it, this dropship's going nowhere!"

"Dropship?" Shlitzee's eyes glowed green. "Did you say dropship? This is an officer's lifeboat! It's a nice one, but it's no dropship."

"Um, yeah right. Lifeboat," Nike said slowly while thinking, "Smart ass robot!"

Arkady resumed his seat in the engineer's flight chair. He gazed over the controls. Suddenly he recognized one. "Reserve power is very low. We'll be in the dark in a few hours."

Percy noticed the computer terminal and flight chair beside Arkady. He gleefully sat down. Thank goodness he remembered how to work it. Percy was pleased as he worked the computer and scanned the displays. Only 14 hours had passed since he'd woken up as a clone of the original Percy Jenkins. There was much he would have to remember. The 'bus theory' hit him like a ton of bricks: what if he was the only one to remember how to work certain controls? There was one solution to that. The bane of every developer, technogeek and engineer: documentation. Everyone hated to write it, but everyone depended on it. With the short supply of knowledgeable folks on board, Percy decided to do some documenting. He pulled out the fluorescent yellow Post-It Notes™ pad from his bag and took the ink pen from his uniform pocket underneath his duralloy plated armor (not an easy task because he'd fastened it tightly back on Warden.) Then he started labeling controls.

"Uh, Percy, what are you doing?" Amanda asked, amused.

"I'm documenting." He looked up as he realized more critical issues demanded his attention. "Hey, it's my nature," he sighed. He turned his attention to the list of running and completed system processes. "The ship's life form scan is complete," Percy interjected. "There are numerous small creatures burrowing down in the sand around us. And, oh! There are six humanoids directly behind us!" While everyone turned to look, Percy typed furiously at the keypad before him. He displayed views from the external airlock cameras on the main cockpit monitors. The sky was growing dark and a thick fog clouded the view, but several humanoids were clearly visible. Most of them were cowering. One was on his knees prostrate in the sand and waving his arms skyward.

Bud scratched his right ear with his left thumb. "I don't think they're here to fix the reactor. Maybe we should make contact while we figure out what to do with this crate?" He winked at Shlitzee and jovially slapped Chel on the shell.

Nike nodded. "Affirmative. We may not have what we need on board to make necessary repairs, if those repairs are even possible. So positive interaction with the natives, who may be our only chance to survive out here, would be a definite plus, no?"

"Waaaaaaiiitaminute. Did you say 'problem with the reactor', Nike? Well, I'm no propulsion engineer, but I'll see what I can do." Percy grimaced. He realized the irony of the statement, and his mind briefly dwelt on the unknown fate of Zhaxier. He rose to his feet from the computer terminal plastered with square pieces of paper. "Ok, which way to the reactor room? I've got a bag and fanny pack full of tools, gadgets, and..." As he spoke he sifted through the contents briefly. "And boxer shorts. Well maybe something in here will help! Maybe some of our more diplomatic members can greet the crowd outside?"

"Percy, you'll find the engineering room behind the second door on the right just ahead." Nike pointed the way. Percy nodded affirmatively. "Let's go," Nike said as she led Bud, Shlitzee and Chelydra quickly up the central corridor to the airlock. Percy and Arkady headed toward engineering.

At the end of the corridor, Nike approached the airlock control computer. It suddenly popped out without her command. Nike watched in surprise as the keyboard lit up. Two buttons were highlighted: one for the inner door and one for the outer door. A display read, 'inner cabin and airlock equalized to outer atmosphere'.

Bud gazed around the environment control room to get his bearings. He approached the airlock door and looked through the window. As he did so, a dim light came on inside and he could see that the far door was still closed.

Shlitzee received an electronic repair notice and relayed to the crew, "Secondary computer repairs are complete. However, to restore the AI the autonomic regulator will have to be installed by one of you carbon bags." She smiled and her eyes turned a bright shade of blue as Chelydra looked at her curiously.

"Okay, which 'carbon bag' wants to install the autonomic regulator?" Bud said into his transmitter.

"Team, this is Percy," they heard over their comm devices. "That explains the ship's computer running the life forms search without our having to tell it to. The primary computer runs low level ship systems. The secondary computer is a higher level human interface. It's listening to our requests and performing functions as we require them. The autonomic regulator is required for the artificial intelligence to function. It must've shorted out somehow. Without it, the ship's computer can't perform higher level analytic functions. If we find an autonomic regulator, we'll see if we can install it!"

"Alright boys," Nike said to those around her. "Let's put on our diplomacy hats." She looked at Chelydra. "On second thought, maybe you should put on your take-a-back-seat-and-guard-our-asses hat." Chelydra bristled. "Hey, I'm not saying don't come with us, just come in the back, nice and easy. No offense big guy, but I'm not sure how these people are going to react to you. Asuda, can you get that door open?"

Bud slicked his hair back in hopes of making a good first impression with the natives. "Door? I have a way with doors." He smiled while he tried the manual latch. It spun easily in his hands. It opened toward him and Bud entered the airlock. Through the window of the outer door, Bud saw vague shapes in the dark. Strobing flashes of lightning provided glimpses of the desperate humanoids a meter or so below the tail end of the ship.

Shlitzee's eyes flashed from red to green twice. "Let's say 'hi' to the fleshies," she said in a husky synthovoice.

Nike stood at the entrance to the airlock watching Bud. Chelydra and Shlitzee stood behind her. Bud continued looking out at the humanoids. "I'd like to know more about them, but what's our best approach? We've got some people that don't look like they were expecting us... and I don't see anyone like Chel or Shlitzee among them."

Shlitzee popped the plastilid from a small canister and fastened it to her neck. A fast fizzy whoosh was heard as the canister frosted over. Shlitzee unscrewed the canister and pocketed it. "Well," her eyes shading mauve, "I'd go give 'em a talkin' to, but I suppose that's not what you had in mind. I wouldn't be too hasty to invite new house guests." Her laser roved slightly, at nothing in particular.

Bud absent mindedly fiddled with his pistol. "Should we send a lone envoy? Should we offer shelter from the storm?"

"Invite them in?" Nike asked rhetorically. "Total security nightmare. Alone isn't an option either. Bud, seeing as we're the only normal humanoid looking options here. You game?"

The ship suddenly shuddered. Bud, Nike and Chelydra reached for the bulkhead to stay on their feet. Shlitzee, magnetically adhered to the floor of the ship, swayed only a little. "What was that?" Nike asked.

Bud looked at the small terminal in the airlock. "The shields are reacting to the storm. The airlock computer says there's danger of an electrical discharge."

Nike raced through the possibilities in her mind. She wondered if bringing them onboard for shelter would help or harm them. Their ship was probably a giant magnet for the lightning. Did they even know if it could sustain a hit? "Radio on. Percy and Arkady--is there any way to erect a lightning rod, of sorts, to make our ship a less inviting target?" Another series of lightning bolts cast green light on Bud's face as he stared out the airlock window. "Better make that analysis quick, guys."

"We're on it," Arkady said through the radio.

"How many natives are out there?" Nike asked Bud, cursing herself for forgetting.

Bud saw a few natives desperately digging holes in the sand with their hands. One native remained on his knees imploring the heavens. "I can only see three," Bud replied. "Maybe we should pull back from the airlock, keep it secure-coded and converse through the intercom?"

"You're assuming they speak English," Shlitzee added.

Arkady's voice came over the radio. "The shields have absorbed an indirect hit. The batteries and capacitors stored a little of the excess charge and released the rest into the sand. There's no guarantee the shield can handle a direct hit, but there's plenty of headroom. Anyone outside the ship at that time wouldn't stand a chance!"

Nike frowned. This seemed to be a situation where there was no obviously 'right' choice. "Suggestions about these natives, people?" Nike barked through the radio.

"Nike, this is Percy. I say invite 'em in for refreshments! They probably know this storm'll pulverize them if they stay out there. Maybe take them to the galley for a little lunch; a little Q and A? We've got an engine to fix and a lightning rod to build." Nike gave Percy's comments to Chelydra. They shared a look of concern, not only for their potential house guests, but also because Nike and Chelydra were the only ones who had been through the galley and knew there was no food there.

Bud watched the storm through the airlock window. "I think we have to take the risk. I'm not keen on taking unknown humanoids onboard, but I don't think they'll last long out there. We might need a few friends on this ball, and I think we could keep them isolated."

Nike nodded in agreement. "We're going outside. Chelydra and Shlitzee -- keep us covered. Let's try to make some new friends."

Shlitzee gyrated her head slowly then stopped. Fully erect, she said, "So let me get this straight. You two meatsacks are going outside to flapjaw with the locals while turtlewax and I wait here. If things go well, we'll move back into the ship and close the inner lock door. If things go sour, Magic Shell and I obliterate anything causing trouble while you two run back inside?"

"Affirmative. Bud, you ready to make first contact?"

"Meatsak-asuda ready to roll." He smiled as he made his gun ready for easy draw. "If I touch my left ear," he addressed his 3 companions, "that means I'm about to shoot something. If I scratch my nose, lock the doors whether or not we're back in. If I slick my hair back... well that means my hair's out of place."

Chelydra took a covering position with his shotgun. "Gotta watch the ammo, no telling when I'll get a resupply," he thought. "Don't forget to duck if you want me to reach out and touch someone," he joked with Asuda and Nike.

Nike entered the airlock and Bud followed. She glanced at the monitor above the opening mechanism. The humanoid figures were still below them. She pressed a button and the outer door opened. The hot wind that blew sand in her eyes felt as if it had been blown from a furnace. She shielded her face with her hands and looked down. A few meters below her were several men: seemingly human men. They had noticed the open door and were on their knees bowing their heads to her. Nike was disconcerted by the feeling of performing in a bad science fiction film. She raised her hands, palms open in welcome. "We come in peace," she said.

One of the men raised his head and exclaimed, "Salvation!"

"Well what d'ya know! They speak English," Shlitzee said to Chelydra. "What is this, Star Trek?"

"Who are you and where did you come from," Nike shouted over the wind.

"I am Horatio of the Hithari Galtites," the man yelled back. The others stole furtive glances while they cowered. "I am a priest and these are my students. We came from the oasis at Sigai. We pray for shelter from the storm."

Nike glanced around her at the great outdoors. It was much nastier than when she and Chelydra had gazed briefly through the hull breach. Distant lightning meandered threateningly through the clouds. She looked at Bud. He slicked his hair back. Nike waved to the men and said, "Sure, come on up."

Horatio climbed up the side of the ship first. His students watched as Nike helped him inside. They looked at each other then scrambled for the airlock entrance. Nike helped each one up and Bud ushered them inside. Each man except Horatio carried a light backpack and nothing else. Beyond the airlock, in the environment control room, Shlitzee and Chelydra awaited their entrance. Horatio was the first to spot them. His eyes were wide as saucers but he quickly regained his composure. Horatio's students, however, could not so well control their reactions. They muttered and recited prayers excitedly. Horatio spoke sharply, "Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?" They silently stared at their feet in shame.

Chelydra grunted and patted his shotgun fondly. He prevented the men from entering the rest of the ship. Shlitzee prevented them from getting too close to any of the machinery. Bud stood ready and fingered his holstered pistol.

The last of Horatio's five students exited the airlock. Nike shut the outer airlock door and followed them into the control room. She closed the inner door and considered her next move. "Here comes the nightmare part of this scenario," she thought to herself. "Well, gentlemen. Shall we retire to the galley?"

"Sounds like a secure place," Chelydra responded.

"Shlitzee and I will lead the way. Security officer Chelydra and Bud, will you please bring up the rear?" Both men nodded. Nike led Horatio and his terrified students down the hallway. Shlitzee walked backwards, her laser on standby.

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